Remember how the local sports landscape laid out back in July?
Lindsay Whalen was still point guard for the Minnesota Lynx, Paul Molitor was managing the Minnesota Twins, fans were hopeful that Jimmy Butler would put down deep roots here in Minnesota, and the Vikings were considered among a small group of elite teams favored to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
How things can change in just a matter of months.
Whalen retired and has taken over the surging women’s basketball program at the U of M. Molly was let go by the Twins' brain trust and replaced by Rocco Baldelli. Butler has the 76’ers in second place in the NBA’s Atlantic division.
The Vikings? Well, the Vikings have an opportunity to rejoin that small group favored to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
“We know our backs are against the wall, and I think we play better in those situations," said outside linebacker Anthony Barr, with his spin on a classic cliche'. “We know we have to have it (Sunday’s game in Detroit) and we’ve reached a new level the last few weeks and hopefully we can keep that momentum riding.”
You may be tempted to remind Anthony it was less than two weeks ago that the Vikings had lost two straight and fired their offensive coordinator but in the NFL that is old news... and where the Vikings are right now, almost entirely irrelevant.
You see, the Vikings now have a NEW offensive coordinator, they were actually able to run the football against Miami, and they’re coming off a lopsided win. That means both internally and externally, it’s time for the Vikings to forget about the past sell an entirely new story.
“We just have to win games”, says running back Dalvin Cook. “We know what we gotta do at this point. We know how we gotta play, we have little time for error, we just gotta go out there and play clean football and win football games.”
Exactly. Gone (at least temporarily) are those Vikings who frequently gave up big plays on defense in the first half of the season. In their place is a defense that seems to have found itself, perhaps at just the right time. And just how have they done it?
“Playoff mentality, just play it like that”, says defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. “Every game matters because if you lose you go home, that’s how we feel.”
While the Vikings aren’t QUITE at that point yet, Richardson’s point is well made. But it's the even 'more' recent emergence of Dalvin Cook and the team’s previously non-existent run game that has rekindled interest in the Vikings as a playoff contender.
“They’re pretty healthy as a team”, says Lions safety Glover Quinn. “So, there’s just more players on the field, more attention has to be paid to different guys and so it changes the dynamic and some of the things that we have to do defensively to make sure that we’re accountable."
If the first two elements in the Vikings re-written story is the emergence of a run game and the return of a dominating defense, the third... and perhaps most important element... would be the ability to win on the road.
The Vikings need to begin writing that chapter Sunday, in Detroit. The Vikings record on the road this season is 2-4-1, with their last win coming Oct. 21 against the New York Jets. At that point the Vikings had won two straight on the road, including an impressive week-5 victory over the defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles.
The road losses have come against presumed or confirmed playoff teams; the L.A. Rams, Chicago Bears, New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks.
There isn’t a single one of those games you can look at and say the Vikings played up to their potential, or where there wasn’t a moment in the second half of each game where you didn’t say to yourself, “You know, for as lousy as the Vikings have played, they could still win this thing...”
They didn’t, of course... so that’s why writing a news script Sunday in Detroit is critical, for reasons that go beyond the win column. The Vikings have an amazing opportunity to rebrand themselves as a team that is peaking at the right time, but to do that they CANT'T fall into the trap of overlooking the Lions.
“They’ve got a lot of not only great players, but good people,” says wideout Adam Thielen. “They’re not going to quit, they’re going to keep fighting, you see it every week from them. They’ve been in a lot of close games, late into the 4th quarter and have been playing pretty well. So, we know we’re going to get their best effort, they don’t want to lose at home especially, so we’re gonna get a team that’s going to give their full effort, all game.”
A win not only keeps the Vikings in control of their destiny, but is sure to add voices both inside the Vikings locker room and around the NFL, that the Vikings are not only a team that seems to have found itself, but we may finally have found the Super Bowl Favorite Vikings team that people were talking about back in July.